Before Pong Came Along

Since its establishment in 1947, Upton, NY’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has spawned seven Nobel Prize-winning discoveries — and one multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Tennis for Two escaped the notice of the Swedish Academy, but the world’s first video game — invented by physicist William Higinbotham in 1958 — has had a greater impact on the wider world than many of the Lab’s Nobel-crowned efforts. Even so, Higinbotham never earned a cent for his efforts.

From its inception, Brookhaven had an image problem. “Meltdown” hadn’t yet become a household word, but nuclear energy was something scary and new, and people weren’t keen on a reactor operating anywhere near their backyards. As a gesture of openness to their Long Island neighbors, Brookhaven scientists initiated an annual “Visitors Day,” inviting the public to explore the facility. Brookhaven’s staff exhibited their latest advances in high-energy physics, displaying Geiger counters, electronic circuits and blinking lights.

It was a dud, at least until Higinbotham showed up. He had arrived at Brookhaven in 1948 as a nuclear physicist who had designed the timing device used to detonate the first atomic bomb. Having helped end the Second World War, he was now tasked with rescuing Visitors Day. As head of Brookhaven’s Instrumentation Division, an expert on circuitry, and a pinball aficionado with a quirky streak that found expression in his virtuoso accordion riffs, Higinbotham was the man for the job. Casting about the labs to find equipment that might amuse the masses, he hit upon an oscilloscope — an instrument that tracks voltage using a cathode ray tube — and an analog computer that was used to calculate ballistic missile trajectories. Higinbotham yoked the the two together, allowing him to command the ball of light on the oscilloscope display to bounce around the screen and simulate gravity. A little tweaking gave him an on-screen net and two control devices with a button (for hitting the ball) and a knob (for controlling how high it was hit). Tennis for Two was born.

Higinbotham sketched up the idea for the game in about two hours, and then built it with the help of a Brookhaven engineer over three weeks. By Visitors Day on October 18th, 1958, Tennis for Two was ready and on display alongside posters and instruments that assured the public of the benign influence of nuclear energy.

The posters went unread and the instruments went uninspected. Instead, hundreds of people lined up, waiting for hours to devote a few minutes to staring at a 5-inch green phosphor monochrome screen, where they could control the trajectory of a dot of light bouncing back and forth. Being a scientist and not an entrepreneur, Higinbotham was nonplussed by his invention’s popularity. “It never occurred to me that I was doing anything very exciting,” he later reflected. “The long line of people I thought wasn’t because this was so great, but because all the rest of the things were so dull.”

Tennis for Two was rolled out for the 1959 Visitors Day with an upgrade: a larger screen, and the option to vary the gravity so that players could simulate playing tennis on the moon or on high-gravity Jupiter. Once again, it was the belle of the ball. After that, the game was disassembled, packed away and never seen again.

However, Higinbotham had demonstrated what geeky science graduate students around the country were rapidly discovering: advanced computing technology wasn’t primarily a force for evil, but a force for fun. In 1961, a group of MIT graduate students poured their downtime into inventing Spacewar! on one of the university’s supercomputers. When a University of Utah engineering student named Nolan Bushnell came across Spacewar!, he intuited that games like this could make a sparkling addition to pinball arcades. He founded a company called Atari, and Pong first appeared in arcades in 1972. When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released less than forty years later, its five-day haul of $775 million made it the most successful launch of any entertainment product in history. As a point of contrast, the gross sales of the Call of Duty series exceed the real-world GDP of Sierra Leone — in whose virtual equivalent a crucial scene in Modern Warfare 3 unfolds.

Tennis for Two would likely have been forgotten entirely had it not been for a series of lawsuits in the late 1970’s. Magnavox, inventor of the Odyssey, the world’s first home gaming console, held a patent on their table tennis game and sued anyone who tried to release a game that featured a bouncing ball. In 1976, Higinbotham testified to his invention of a tennis-like video game well before Magnavox, with defendants hoping that this evidence would work in their favor. It didn’t, and Magnavox won the suit, but the court case also brought Higinbotham recognition as the inventor of the video game.

Although the original Tennis for Two survived for only a couple of years, it has continued to be a PR hit for Brookhaven. As part of the lab’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1997, a team from the Instrumentation Division recreated the game drawing on the original plans that Higinbotham — who died in 1994 — had drawn up. Where it took Higinbotham three weeks, it took Peter Takacs and his team nine months. Finding vintage parts like mechanical relays and germanium transistors was a key obstacle, as was re-learning how to use the now-obsolete equipment. When the instrumentation team exhibited the game again for its own fiftieth anniversary in 2008, it learned one upside to working with this archaic equipment: when a spark blew the game’s circuits, it took a mere 25 minutes to repair the analog computer, where an error on a more intricate digital computer would have put the machine out of commission for days.

Higinbotham never patented his invention, but even if he had, the patent would have gone to the US government, since Brookhaven is a national laboratory. For his own part, Higinbotham remained unmoved by the riches he may have passed up. Having witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb in the Jornada del Muerto, he became a mettlesome campaigner for nuclear non-proliferation and was the first chairman and executive secretary of the Federation of American Scientists, which advocated nuclear disarmament. Toward the end of his life, Higinbotham expressed regret that he would be chiefly remembered for inventing a game, and not for his non-proliferation work. Such are the regrets of a man who helped to change the world irrevocably — twice.